I blame the British
but the voice-with-a-smile of democracy
announces night & day
‘all poor little peoples that want to be free
just trust in the u s a’
e.e. cummings, ‘Thanksgiving (1956)’
We in Iraq are losing our minds. War does that to people, even to us in the North who have yet to see one. All that we have observed are B52s roaring through the skies to bomb cities south of here and a sideshow offensive to eradicate Islamic fundamentalists from the hills along the Iranian border. Oh, yes, the Iraqi Army did withdraw from the Kirkuk front into Kirkuk itself without a fight. Not much, compared to the madness in the South, but enough for us to share the insanity.
The war is two weeks old, a pup by most standards, but it feels like it’s already in overtime. The US Defense Secretary, Mr Donald ‘Rummy’ Rumsfeld, has just warned us that wearing down the Iraqi Army may take some time. Why does no one listen to him? Like most other politicians, he can, unexpectedly, utter a (belated) truth. George Bush has asked the Congress to stump up an extra $75 billion to replenish expended hardware and to transport more soldiery from the threatened homeland to the battlefield. The American television networks, less enthusiastic about bearing any burden and paying any price, are cutting back on staff out here and on airtime at home. Most of us, myself among the crowd, believed the Iraqi Army would go down like it did in 1991, when it was larger, better armed and had more money. Now, this weakened force is holding back the combined weight of the United States and Britain the way Yasir Arafat’s few thousand commandos kept the Israeli Army out of Beirut for nearly three months in 1982. I remember the words of a Palestinian activist in Beirut that year: ‘All the real fighting is done with Kalashnikovs. Everything else is fireworks.’
Saddam’s boys have the Kalashnikovs. Whether they fight out of fear of the leader or love of the country, they are battling harder and longer than the American game plan envisaged. I blame the British. Their forces are too few to make a difference, and Iraqis remember that their grandfathers fought against them when they created this country in 1921. What the hell are they doing back here? Throw in the daily bloodletting in the West Bank and Gaza, with the rumours that the US is threatening Syria on behalf of Israel, and you see that fear of the leader is not too distant from love of country. It worked for Stalin, when the Germans promised to liberate the Russians, and it seems to be doing the trick for his pupil Saddam. The Iraqi people themselves should have been allowed to overthrow the bastard in 1991, but the United States never wanted that. When it comes to changing regimes in the Middle East, as in Latin America of old, Americans prefer not to leave it to the natives.
Washington invited the British, the Poles, the Australians and just about any other nationality that still listens to it to participate in the overthrow of Mr Rumsfeld’s old negotiating partner, President and Field Marshal Saddam Hussein. However, Messrs Bush and Rumsfeld neglected to ask Iraq’s people to do anything other than stay out of the way. Prohibited from fighting alongside America against Saddam, many are fighting for him instead. They are sniping at American supply lines. One soldier blew himself up to kill four American marines, and Saddam awarded him two posthumous medals. As if to underline their misunderstanding of the world, American military spokesmen call Iraqis who are resisting their invasion ‘terrorists’. Who else on earth would call a man who fights a foreign soldier in his own country a terrorist?
Iraqi and other Arab television channels portray Iraqi citizens resisting the invader not as terrorists, but as heroes. Volunteers are leaving Jordan to fight for Iraq. One ABC News reporter with US troops in Safwan, a town just over the fence from Kuwait, said he was surprised to hear his Arabic translator tell him that people receiving American food parcels were not chanting, ‘Thank you, Uncle Sam, for the rice,’ but: ‘By our blood, by our souls, we will sacrifice our lives for you, O Saddam!’ Somebody fucked up, and blame is thrown from hand to hand like a live grenade. Sooner or later, if nobody falls on it, it will blow them all away. The generals blame Rumsfeld, who blames the Pentagon bureaucracy, who blame the State Department, who blame the CIA, who blame the Iraqi opposition, who aren’t part of the war and have no one to blame but themselves for trusting the United States. Soon, they’ll all, as in Vietnam, blame the press.
The only Iraqis who seem still to trust the United States are the Kurds, whose history of betrayal at America’s hands is longer than anyone else’s. The leader of their original nationalist movement, Mullah Mustafa Barzani, witnessed the fall of the Kurdish Mahabad Republic in 1946, when the US helped the Shah of Iran to crush the Stalin-supported statelet and hang its leaders. Barzani fled to the Soviet Union, but returned to fight the Iraqi state at America’s behest in 1974. When the Shah of Iran signed a border agreement with Saddam in Algiers in 1975, Henry Kissinger let Saddam blast the Kurds out of the mountains. Mullah Mustafa died, a much loved if defeated leader, in American exile. His son, Massoud, succeeded him. A hearty people with forgiving memories, the Kurds turned to the US for succour in 1988. That was when Saddam gassed many of their villages, notably Halabja. The US tried to accuse the Iranians of killing the Kurds. (Britain, for its part, denied that the gassing had taken place at all. Then Gwynne Roberts, a documentary film-maker, carried soil samples from Halabja to Porton Down for scientific analysis. Not only did the soil contain poison residue, it indicated that Saddam’s chemical formulae had originated in the Western world.) Three years later, the Kurds once again put their faith in the Stars and Stripes. President George Bush called on them to rise up after his conquest of Kuwait in February 1991. Rise they did, along with the Shiites. And massacred they were, like the Shiites. But the Kurds were redeemed when the US gave them a Saddam-free zone north of the 36th parallel, something no one offered the Shiites. That, no doubt, is one reason the southern villagers remain so bitter.
The United States abandoned the South to its fate in 1991, while General Norman Schwarzkopf was only miles away. Ali Hassan al-Majid, Saddam’s Reinhard Heydrich, oversaw the ruin of the rebellious Shiites’ homes and the torture of their children. Unlike the Kurds, the southern Shiites have remained under Saddam’s rule since 1991, a fate to which they had to accommodate themselves or die. They also suffered the worst of the economic sanctions. Where Kurdish infant mortality declined under self-rule, theirs rose tenfold or more under Saddam. And the blame for sanctions fell on the United States for compelling the United Nations to renew them each year. Whenever Saddam pops up on Iraqi television to show his people that the US has failed once again to assassinate him, he alleges that the Americans invaded because the UN was about to cancel sanctions. We must bear this in mind when young Iraqis approach British and American soldiers and shout at them to get out of their country.
The picture in Iraqi Kurdistan is the reverse of the South: no battles, very few American troops and a population that loves the United States. Iraq’s Kurds have lived in the North without fear of Saddam and his security forces for 12 years, with a brief interruption in 1996. The few thousand American troops who have flown in here over the last few weeks have stayed away from the population. There are no American checkpoints and no leaflet drops. American warplanes and Special Forces allowed one of the two largest Kurdish factions, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, to overcome a local Islamist group called Ansar al-Islam. For the most part, the combined operation by the peshmerga guerrillas and the Americans was a rare success in a country where setbacks are the norm. The annihilation and exodus of some eight hundred Ansar guerrillas permitted the US to claim a propaganda coup and to fudge the distinction between Kurdish Islamic misfits and America’s ennemis de l’année, Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. The US also managed to claim that Ansar had poison gas that it could have used against, you guessed it, American cities. US propaganda aside, some of the Kurds dream that the Ansar battle will serve as a model for liberating the once Kurdish oil centre of Kirkuk. They ignore, however, the lack of American heavy artillery and armour up here that would take a long time to deliver on the Kurds’ few and primitive airstrips.
The Kurds appear to love the more or less absent Americans; the Shiites and other Arabs in the South appear to loathe them. This was not how it was supposed to be. Last January, Kanan Makiya of the Iraqi opposition told me he had recently met with President Bush at the White House. Bush asked him how the American Army would be received in Iraq. ‘With sweets and flowers,’ Makiya said. Bush then asked: ‘Would it be the same if the bombing was severe?’ ‘Does it have to be severe?’ Makiya asked. It would seem that the bombing has to be severe in order to win the battle for military dominance. But the more severe it is, the more likely the US will lose the ‘hearts and minds’ of which military spokesmen speak. So far, there is a severe shortage of sweets and flowers in the South of Iraq.
Rather than sweets and flowers, American soldiers are finding suicide bombers and young men who shoot Kalashnikovs at them. This increases their anxiety to such a degree that they killed seven women and children and wounded several others in a car that did not stop at one checkpoint. Which leaves the stronger impression on impressionable peasants: getting chocolate cakes from friendly Americans or the killing of those they know and love by those same Americans? In 1921 the British Empire beat back the natives and won the war in Iraq. Iraqis have yet to thank Britain, and I wonder when they will express their gratitude to the US for this war to kill off Saddam. Not that many will, in the end, mourn his death.
Who is winning this man’s war? Look at it like this. If Saddam is not losing, he is winning. If America is not winning, it is losing. In the South, the battle rages. In the North, thanks to America’s alienation of Turkey, the absence of American forces has kept the front more or less quiet. For the Kurds, despite their enthusiasm for the US, that may be a blessing. In the rest of the country, Vietnam-era phrases such as ‘hearts and minds’, ‘terrorist infiltrators’ and ‘friendly fire’ are resurrected. Soon, no doubt, President Bush will tell us that there is ‘light at the end of the tunnel’. Beware. That’s no light. It’s fire.